"They're not from around here!"
That's what you hear, again and again, in every conversation you have in the areas of London that have suffered from violent rioting in recent days.
"They're not from around here," said the pub owner in Kentish Town, in northwest London, as he swept up glass shards from the street.
"They don't live here," the Hackney councilwoman said emphatically, as she visited her frightened constituents.
"The young people of his neighborhood aren't capable of doing such a thing," said a carpenter in Tottenham, as he repaired the door of a gambling joint that had been broken into.
Everyone is trying to keep their distance, to separate themselves from the rioters who have been terrorizing the streets of the British capital this past week. They are trying to deny any connection.
But if they aren't from around here, then from where did these hundreds and thousands of rioters and looters burst forth?
Politicians from both the left and the right, academics and journalists who have an agenda, all are trying to fit the rioters into some category and pin the blame on one factor or another: the government's failed social policy and the cuts in welfare budgets, the lack of deterence posed by the police and the too-forgiving courts, the erosion of parental authority and the general loss of values in British society - the list is long and varied.
But as photographs of the rioters are published, and as the detainees are brought to court, it's clear that one cannot generalize them, or fit them into a specific category, or link their actions to a decisive factor.
It's true, most of them are young, but among those who have been arrested are no small number of people in their late twenties, thirties and even forties - people who have families and jobs.
Many of them indeed belong to ethnic minorities, but there were both white and black gangs among the rioters, and several mixed-race gangs as well. It's true that a significant majority of them belong to the lower socioeconomic deciles, but the claims of economic discrimination sound hollow when you consider that hundreds of these young people were called to the riots by messages they received on their BlackBerrys, and when you see them sporting brand-name clothes and shoes.
And while there were many reports of single mothers who took advantage of the anarchy to steal diapers and baby food from supermarkets that were broken into, most of the looting was of electronics and sporting-goods stores.
The disturbances started on the margins of a demonstration by the black community in the neighborhood of Tottenham, following the death of Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old drug dealer and father of four who was shot dead by police after they came to arrest him for possession of an illegal weapon.
But the riots were not directed at police. In many areas, the hooligans were so busy stocking up on gadgets and expensive sneakers that they skipped over the local police stations, which were left unprotected.
Tensions between ethnic groups, a lack of trust in the police, an inter-generational crisis, poverty, unemployment and a lack of programs for youth - all these, of course, have a role in stoking the fire, but none of these factors can explain the scope of the disturbances and their force.
"The only ideology we saw here was the basic human right to steal a television with a 42-inch screen," said an educator with 40 years of experience working with London youth.
Yet the British society that produced the rioters and looters is the same one that on Tuesday brought hundreds of Londoners out of their homes with brooms to clean the streets. And the deprived minorities were the ones who organized and risked their lives doing night patrols, to protect the property of innocent citizens.
The answers are buried in the basic human urges that are found in all of us, not just the residents of London: the herd mentality that leads us to join impassioned groups, even when they are doing improper things; the temptation to snatch shiny objects that are within reach, even when they aren't ours; the heady feeling of provoking the regime; the rush of adrenaline we get from breaking the rules; and the desire to stake out turf for ourselves.
Usually we control these instincts, and when we falter and do not resist the temptation, law enforcement is there to draw the line.
But police hesitancy, which leads to lack of public order and wild abandon by the masses, is not so rare. We're just surprised when it occurs in an ostensibly cultured place like the capital of the United Kingdom.
The British, who in exactly one year are meant to be hosting the Olympic Games, were also shocked. They aren't prepared to admit that they're that type of people.
That's why they keep insisting that the rioters simply aren't from here.
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